Beauty of Ordinary Design

Inspired by the book The Beauty of Ordinary Things, this talk is about appreciating ordinary moments in life— ordinary yet nevertheless real. These problems may be unpopular or tricky to solve from a social, political, and design perspective, but the right solution(s) would have a huge impact for the populations affected. I talk about several of these problem areas and related perspectives that designers can take to have more impact in their own work, even if they don’t work in one of these areas directly.

Currently working on Project Fi – wireless for Android – a service design project.

Inspiration: The Beauty of Ordinary Things, by Harriet Scott Chessman… a traumatised person finds comfort in simple things like reading books and taking walks; then photography. Ultimately ordinary things combine and create his meaning in the world.

How does this apply to design? 70% of life is ordinary! We have morning routines, commutes, family activities… these things are ordinary, mundane, and it is where a great deal of our time is spent.

We have some bigger problems that are “ordinary”. Health care is ordinary. Education is ordinary. Marriage ordinary, but divorce is also ordinary.

These ordinary things would benefit from design process – designers using their approach to problem solving in places that aren’t currently getting that attention.

With an aging population it becomes important to design things that work for the elderly – people will continue to need to use phones and software. They will need different forms of care at different times. A great example of designing a new experience is Hogeweyk Village in the Netherlands, where patients with dementia live in a village – a relatively normal life, with carers “disguised” as gardeners and other roles.

Similarly the ways military veterans are treated when they return home are confused and poorly designed. A new service in the US, the “Digital Service”, is doing things like taking on the confusion around Veterans Affairs. Instead of literally hundreds of incomplete, contradictory websites for veteran information; there’ll be one site – AND they are contacting the people who run all the contradictory sites and working with them to take them offline.

Immigration in the US is plagued with complex, confusing paper forms – people who don’t speak English natively often have to hire a lawyer just to get basic things done.

While it sounds like people are just digitising forms, the impact of that is high: you actually know information has been received, you can check progress and status. It changes the nature of the experience.

Looking at a literally sexy problem: safe sex. Many people hate condoms; and when you look into the history of condoms they haven’t really changed much for a long time. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has actually put forward the challenge to create the next generation of condom. An example of an improvement is the Pronto condom with applicator, which is a real innovation in the space kicked off by paying attention to the design of an ordinary thing.

What about mobile phone plans? The plans are usually complex and confusing. We just want our phones to work wherever we are…

Project Fi has one plan. There’s a basic monthly fee of $20, then $10 per gig of data… and that’s it. The cost of unused data is refunded.

Fi also manages open wifi (and secures the connection), connects to the strongest available mobile signal when no wifi is available. The experience is seamless – it just keeps you online, quietly in the background.

What’s the common thread?

  1. long standing issues that haven’t been changed or addressed in years
  2. socially, politically and/or culturally complexity
  3. Experiences span a long period of time
  4. service design

What can we do?

  • Revisit old problems –
    • ask “how can this be made better?” eg. the “magic link” login for Slack, which is better than pecking in a secure password on a mobile device
    • ask what can be removed? Chromebooks don’t make you log in when your phone is sitting next to it – you’re already authenticated
  • Expect users to change – track users over time and adapt
  • Integrate online & offline – take a holistic view of experiences, consider the real context of a problem. What were they doing before and after they interacted with your site/service/app?
  • Own the entire experience – fill in the gaps in a flow
  • Find your passion – the best ideas come from deep passion. Ask yourself – is this what I want to be working on? Am I excited about this?

There is a lot of beauty to be found in very ordinary design. There is also beauty in ordinary life. These moments make up most of life – if you can take a moment to pause and enjoy those moments, you yourself will find a way to create meaning in the world.